While most of the attention has followed Rafael Nadal’s march to the semifinals at Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych has punched another ticket to a big match. We’ve seen this movie before. Unless he can stare down his renowned opponent, a man who is known for his fight and mental strength, Berdych will be packing his bags for Miami.
Tennis fans have waited a long time for the 27-year-old Berdych to fulfill his potential. He is 6’5” with a chiseled upper body and iron legs—the kind of athlete who could throw logs and deadlift cars at The World’s Strongest Man competition.
His tennis talent is a happy marriage of good footwork with textbook tennis form. His smooth, parabolic strokes hit clean, powerful winners that could rifle past anyone on the ATP. Berdych’s big serve and controlled kick second serves can set him up beautifully for soft volleys, if he chooses.
When he dictates a match, he can beat anyone in the world on any surface. He stormed to the Wimbledon final in 2010. He pushed Novak Djokovic and Nadal on red clay last year. He nearly toppled Roger Federer at Madrid’s hellacious blue clay. He prefers hard courts and had it not been for some gusty winds at the 2012 U.S. Open semifinal, perhaps he would have pulled off a Grand Slam title.
Perhaps. Maybe. Nearly. There are always conditional statements in Berdych’s career. He has had big wins against great champions, but when the lights are on and the trophy is placed on the table, Berdych vanishes like a prop in The Magic of David Copperfield.
Often, with big talented athletes, opportunities and victories come too easy as they develop in their youth. For example, many tall quarterbacks with rocket arms never had to develop finesse or make cerebral decisions to overcome athletic limitations.
Giant basketball players often grow up overpowering their smaller competitors, while rarely needing to develop physical and mental adjustments to their competition.
It becomes routine to dominate others with physical gifts. In juniors tennis, a talented player like Berdych could develop as a world-class player through a big serve and forehand, notwithstanding his other fantastic skills.
On the ATP tour, tennis skills are only one important part of the champion. Learning to win big matches separates someone like Nadal against someone like Berdych. Mental toughness and fight must be developed. Berdych is sensitive, a gentle giant of sorts and every bit the antithesis to determined Federer, fighting Nadal and resilient Djokovic.
Thus far, Berdych has not shown the strength and fortitude to win big points in big matches. Longtime tennis journalist Peter Bodo put it more bluntly via tennis.com:
(Berdych is) a mercurial, world-class head case who can trade shots with anyone but is apt to do his greatest damage when it matters least…That's Berdych: make the impossible shots, miss the ones that are either important or doable (at least against the better players).
Fair or not, Berdych is the kind of athlete who is expected to win with his physical gifts. When he does not, media and fans wonder what went wrong, as if they are Dorothy trying to figure out if he needs brains, a heart or courage to help him along the road to championship glory.
Need to Get Defensive
Not even champions like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are infallible. They just know how to impose their strengths and persevere through tough opponents and moments. Berdych also has his own limitations.
Berdych can flatten out wonderful, flat in-and-out forehands and effortless double backhands, but his formula has always been power and more power. It usually works, as long as he dictates play with his offense.
The problem is Berdych has more trouble with players like Djokovic and Nadal who can weather many of his best shots with their defense. They can scramble, get back to neutral and create their own winning shots. This has a couple effects. It can psychologically demoralize Berdych, who may believe he should have already won the point. It also takes away his offensive control.
The technical weakness in Berdych’s game is his own lack of scrambling defense. He has quick feet, but little imagination when it comes to improvising from defense to offense. He can also be stretched and then set up to hit behind him.
Players with excellent defensive skills can feel a shot of adrenaline and belief in turning the tables on their opponents. This is part of building that warrior mentality that is all but lacking in Berdych’s game.
Time to Shatter the Glass Ceiling
Nadal roars into the semifinals behind the familiar trappings of media hype and fanfare. He has learned to channel setbacks into opportunities, and the past month-and-a-half has seemingly transformed him from rusty and injured to Grand Slam contender.
The Spanish Bull knows how to pace and drive his efforts into winning tennis. He is serving with purpose and driving more flat forehand winners at opportune times.
Most noticeable, he is ripping his backhand like it’s the first set-and-a-half in the 2009 Australian Open final. During that display, Nadal scorched backhand winners with angles and power that make tennis fans wonder why he is often too content to just push it back with spin.
Clearly, his rehabilitation has allowed his team to add more firepower to his arsenal in combating the likes of Djokovic and Andy Murray on hard courts.
Nadal still has issues with his movement and defense, but he is compensating for the fact that he won’t be able to scramble like he did in 2008. He is improving, but has to continue to fine-tune his game and build on match play. He is vulnerable.
Berdych will be lacing up his shoes with the knowledge he has lost 11 straight matches to Nadal. He needs to pack his equipment bag with several bottles of courage and more than a few power bars of belief. He’s a year older than Nadal and may not get a better opportunity than now to win a big match and energize his career into a big championship.
If he gets caught up thinking about his decorated opponent, or he finds himself wavering in the late stages of a tight match, the result will be another predictable implosion. Or, he can grab his hammer and shatter the obstacle to his dreams. Does Berdych believe he can beat the Fab Four and win a Grand Slam before the mists of his 20s evaporate into the wilting heat of his 30s?
Maybe this time, the movie will have a new ending for a new beginning.